There is, in the Bibliotèque Nationale, a famous photo of Edgar Degas, taken a little before his death by Sacha Guitry or one of his cameramen. In this picture Degas is feeling his way with an umbrella along the Boulevard de Clichy, his eyes hidden by the shadow of his bowler brim. He has just passed his reflection in a piano store window, but he cannot—mercifully—have seen himself. We know that his spirits had declined with his eyesight; one friend remarked that if Degas had been able to make out his image as he looked in old age, he'd have broken the glass that held it. In the photo his beard is long and white, yet somehow it is impossible for us, who so enjoy his late work, to imagine him really enfeebled. We want to think of him as a man whose powers only increased with old age, a virile senescent giant from some Italian fresco.

Valéry said that Degas despised humanity, and what was such misanthropy if not “a germ of senility, an a priori crotchetiness?”

This is ironic, for people who knew him in his thirties said that he behaved, even then, like a confirmed vieux garçon. Later, toward the end, Paul Valéry noted that Degas had assumed the mannerisms of a crusty old gentleman of the 1860s, as if that were what he had always really wanted to be. Valéry said that Degas despised humanity, and what was such misanthropy if not “a germ of senility, an a priori crotchetiness?” Another admirer, the young Daniel Halévy, remarked upon the painter’s penchant for tacking “Eh, what?"’s onto the end of his phrases. Despite the novelty of his art, the elderly Degas relished being able to seem like a holdover from the period preceding his birth—a period whose sumptuary laws he tried, within reason, to uphold. It was as if his personal style had at last matured into seamless self-contradiction. He was peerless in his dowdy audacity.

The glamorous curmudgeon is long gone, but in a way his powers have survived him. Of all the artists of the last century, it is he— together with his idol, Ingres—who is most with us, most alive. And we have started to study his work more comprehensively than before. Over the past decade, about a dozen shows—some quite large—have been devoted to his art, and in February an enormous Degas exhibition opened at the Grand Palais in Paris.1

The scholars, meanwhile, relentlessly ply us with books and catalogues. Among other fresh offerings, there is a handsomely illustrated biography by Denys Sutton (who wrote the standard life of Degas’s follower, Walter Sickert) and a revised version, in paper, of Professor Theodore Reff’s well-known interpretive work, Degas: The Artist’s Mind. We also now have Professor Eunice Lipton’s Looking into Degas, which delves into the sociology of the artist’s pictorial world, and Richard Thomson’s The Private Degas, which affords a brief look at the craft behind the art. All serve to remind us that there are now more, not fewer, plausible readings of the master’s achievement.2

Every good book on Degas owes something to Valéry’s Degas Dame Dessin, which was first published by Gallimard in 1938.3 This little volume is a literary hodgepodge, as confusing as a wicked Mallarmé sentence, and many of Valéry’s abstract ruminations on drawing and dance are, to me at least, of exemplary obscurity. But the material on Degas himself, who unwittingly served as one of the models for Valéry’s fictional character Monsieur Teste, has never been bettered. A lot of writing on Degas is cheapened by an excessive interest in subject matter, but Valéry was excited primarily by Degas’s style, which he tried to explore with reference to the man’s artistic personality—both his passive “sensibility” and his active “temperament.” Valéry broods on just the things that painters often puzzle over in their studios. How should a painter (or indeed any artist) go about starting a piece? How should he— or can he—finish it? Can he revise it later, and if so, by what means? How much should an artist yield to unconscious processes, and to what degree can he articulate his aims without over-intellectualizing them? What is the part of intuition, and what is that of knowledge? The answers to these questions, and also their evasions, are woven into the very fabric of Degas’s art, which becomes, in part, their metaphorical expression.

Valéry isn’t much interested in the independent existence of the objects in Degas’s work; he understands that they are alibis, vessels for the impress of his spirit. And what the poet perceives in Degas’s spirit—in its way of pictorially stamping its shape upon paper and canvas—is, above all, its emphasis on sheer willpower. Valéry points out that the painter was never satisfied with the products of his spontaneity. “His mind was too critical, too steeped in the Masters, to yield to a natural sensuality,” he writes. “There are beings who do not feel that they have acted—that they have accomplished anything—if they have not done so in opposition to themselves.”

Degas’s willfulness was heightened by an almost constant self-opposition, a flexing of contrary motives. His defiance was matched by his conventionalism, his stern self-revisions by his acceptance of the unfinished, and his appreciation of honest virtuosity by a fondness for dubious technical tricks. Everyone around him detected the paradoxically of his nature. “He’s always searching for accidents,” said Daniel Halévy’s father, Ludovic. Though proclaiming himself a purist in all sorts of matters, Degas was forever trying to combine art materials that didn’t seem likely to get along. He was a manic hybridizer, a crossbreeder of mutual animosities.

Valéry is alive to the Italian in Degas, whose half-Italian father had grown up in Naples. He perhaps makes too much of the painter’s fluency in the Neapolitan dialect, of his stridency in debate, of his way of casually breaking into Cimarosa songs; yet all this did have its part in Degas’s artist-nature. He had lost his mother at thirteen, and perhaps because of that became a champion of hopeless causes. Naples had been a Bourbon principality until i860, and thus had a sentimental, reactionary allure; so did Confederate New Orleans, where Degas had other kinsmen, and so, later, did the defeated anti-Dreyfusards. It was characteristic of Degas that when his banker father died insolvent, in 1874, he took it upon himself to acquit the outstanding debts. The Degas clan believed themselves scions of a Crusader lord, and were allied by marriage with the Morbilli, an Italian ducal line; the last thing the painter wished was to betray the family honor. As a result, he gave up his fortune, and moved into rooms off a dingy little street, where he dined on boiled macaroni and Dundee marmalade. Yet surely his relative poverty was half-welcome. It gave him an excuse for staying single—he’d always been wary of women—and for raking up the past.

Degas’s disciplined observance of a covenant of debt, his refusal to declare bankruptcy, fits in with Valéry’s conception of his “voluntarist” temperament. Valéry might have added that Degas’s emotional relationship to his paintings was also somewhat promissory or contractual. He would give his word to himself, as it were, that he was going to pull off some feat to perfection, and then feel duty-bound to succeed. He couldn’t let go. The result was eternal revision—the endless bringing of canvases up to an imaginary mark—and more than a few badly overworked pieces. He would give or sell or trade something to someone, then steal it back, “correct” it, and so destroy it. One collector friend was rumored to have padlocked a Degas to the wall.

But if Degas was married to the past, he also kept the future as his mistress. It is useful, in his case, to remember that there are two sorts of faith. We talk of “keeping” faith (as with a promise) and of “having” faith (as in a personal providence); Degas was no stranger to either. He believed in codes and canons, but also in the form of unfolding destiny that is style. The latter belief expressed itself most obviously in his “spinoffs.” In these myriad reworkings the motif would remain the same, but the medium, handling, or cropping would be changed. He'd make a drawing, reverse it, try it out in oils, work it up into an etching, color a proof, “flop” it again, trace it five times, develop one tracing into a big pastel—the process never stopped. Every image was pregnant with possibilities, a bearer of infinite hope.

The same equipoise between backward-looking indebtedness and forward-looking venturesomeness may be found in Degas’s drawing. Here the debt was to Ingres, whose doctrines he had learned in his youth, and who had told him, in a celebrated encounter, to “draw a lot of lines.” Valéry reminds us that Ingres wanted to turn his own lines into super-fluid “conductors” of the viewer’s glance; for this he was willing to “push grace to monstrosity,” as in Mlle. Revière or Roger and Angelica. From Ingres and his pupils Degas inherited a love of arabesques, along with certain old-fashioned practices, such as drawing preliminary nude studies of figures that were to be draped. Here it should be noted that three different ways of drawing the model co-existed in the nineteenth century (and still do). You could go for the proportions, which is apparently what David taught Ingres and his other pupils to do; you could go for the design at the probable expense of the proportions, which is how Ingres arrived at his “monstrous” arabesques; and, lastly, you could go for the pose—or the arrested action—which is what Degas did. He drew not so much people as poses, which is why he had to find situations, like the ballet and the bath, in which the pose, not the person, was paramount. But at the same time he tried to hang on to the accurate proportions and the strong abstract design of great classic art. The Irish writer George Moore, who like Valéry was friendly with Degas, perceptively wrote that Degas’s method was at bottom the same as Ingres’s, “but the subject-matter is so different that the method is in all outward characteristics transformed.”

The glamorous curmudgeon is long gone, but in a way his powers have survived him.

Degas puts Ingres’s form-language through a set of realistic paces; a Degas drawing is Ingres in the streets, the theater wings, the bathrooms. For many people of the Second Empire the notion of “the truth” came to be associated with chance or randomness—the kaleidoscope of walkers in the boulevard— and Degas was no exception. But even as he blitzed his cast of characters with newfangled lighting effects, he tried to hang on to Ingres’s concept of drawing. And as he pulled farther and farther away from Ingres he praised him all the more frequently, just as Ingres, in departing from Raphael, had invoked the master of Urbino. Yet Degas never lost his love for the classic problems, and delighted in painting horses and cavaliers and ladies nude or scantily clad. The racecourse, the jockey, the ballet, the tub— these were largely excuses to regain the grand old subjects. The point is obvious but important: it protects us from the philistinism of taking Degas’s motifs literally—of turning his art, as many writers still do, into a form of painted journalism.

The biggest philistines in this regard are those art critics and historians who, consciously or unconsciously, want to assimilate the aesthetic to the moral sense. They cannot accept that art is largely play; they want it to be a form of Puritan good works. Fortunately, Professor Eunice Lipton, of SUNY Binghamton, is not liable to charges quite so gross. Her Looking Into Degas, a feminist reading of the master’s pictorial treatment of women, shows warm admiration of Degas’s strictly aesthetic virtues, and concisely marshals much reliable evidence concerning the true nature of his models. She claims that in his paintings traditional Parisian subjects of titillation, like ballerinas and pretty laundresses, are returned to their real status as ordinary working people. This is probably true; it’s certainly what George Moore sensed in the pictures. He spoke of “the dim, sad poetry of female work,” and of sumptuous bonnets that meant for the little milliner merely “long hours of weariness and dejection.” Degas confirmed this view: “These women of mine are honest, simple folk,” he told Moore. Where Lipton goes awry, though, is in seeing Degas’s paintings as some sort of “ideological masquerade,” a feint whereby the real face of society is subtly despoiled of its bourgeois disguises. She shares with many non-feminist intellectuals a tendency to dwell upon the reportorial value of imaginative works of art. Though artworks may actually have such merits, they ought to be of minor importance to people of developed visual sensibility. In Degas they are particularly questionable; one noted historian of nineteenth-century French art, Ronald Pick-vance, has concluded that Degas took such liberties with what he saw around him that his pictures lack all documentary credibility. And indeed the artist sniffed at journalistic verism; Zola, he said, was “a giant studying a telephone book.”

Valéry, who never made the mistake of taking any work of art literally, was a great admirer of the slender sheaf of sonnets that Degas composed in old age. I doubt that it even occurred to him to think that Degas’s line, “All nervously nude in its robe of silk,” referred exclusively to a racehorse: he surely remembered that the artist too had a bloodline. For the poetic imagination, every work of art is primarily an account, not of the world, but of the artist’s feelings about the world at a certain moment. Degas himself was the thoroughbred; “I run the long race, but I am content with my bag of oats,” he liked to say. He also liked, as the Goncourts mention in their journal, to mimic the movements of the Opéra ballet girls, and when he summed up his bathers for George Moore as “the human animal grooming itself—a cat licking itself,” we recognize once more that the nervous nudity of these creatures is that of the artist himself. Degas invests his bathing women with so much idiosyncratic visual energy that they become, in a way, his self-portrait. That is why the interminable discussions of his attitude to them and their station in life are, from the strictly artistic point of view, almost completely irrelevant.

If there is a way that gender is relevant to Degas, it probably has to do with the balance of masculine and feminine impulses within the artist himself. These impulses disclose themselves more clearly in his way of painting than in what he paints. A friend of mine, a woman artist, said to me recently that for her Degas was largely about “control versus losing control”—about conventionally “male” domination versus “female” abandon. A look at his pictures bears this out. On the one hand, there is a commitment to advance work, to detailed preliminary studies; on the other, a risky search for such accidents as might result from the application of daring glazes, tones impulsively rubbed together, edges hacked up with a “grainer,” and so on. The young Degas starts out as a tonal painter who wants, like Ingres, to work everything out in monochrome first. He makes some sort of underpainting, a grisaille or imprimatura, then matches his colors to this map (“a touch here, a touch there,” as he expressed it). He follows Ingres’s dictum that everything that is well drawn can be well enough painted. In a lot of his work, right through the mid-Eighties, you feel you could peel away a skin of color that isn’t quite essential to the painting. The work has very good color, but it isn’t made of color. In a painting class of today, this would very likely be regarded as a fault, because it embodies a pre-modern way of thinking: it reflects the early nineteenth-century French concept of values as the steps on a chiaroscuro scale. Later in the century, after Corot and Pissarro and Monet, this concept changes and starts to refer to the total visual weight of any stroke, area, or sequence of identical spots (as in textile or wallpaper repeats). The term “value” comes to indicate not only the degree of lightness but also the hue, saturation, paint quality, and even size of a color patch, and composition evolves into the science of adjusting the weights of “pieces of paint”—as one might weigh up the ingredients for a soup on a kitchen scale.

In Degas, too, you can see this shift from chiaroscuro values to color values; it feels once again like a transition from “keeping” faith with what one has done (in an initial monochrome design) to “having” faith in what providence will do (if one trusts in the power of color). Mastery and probity are traded in for intuition and surprise. I don’t know if it makes sense to talk about paintings as if they had hormones, but if so, Degas’s work acquires more female hormones at some point—it’s full of expectancy and nurturing and play. By degrees he grows able to think of color as the constituent element of a piece, and he lets it largely determine how the piece will look. In his pastels from the Eighties on, and in paintings like La Coiffure or Four Dancers, he does for color what Ingres had done for line; he lets it shape structure by itself, without compulsively relating it back to a decoding of nature.

All of Degas’s paintings are valuable, but if some do not really come off, it’s usually for one of two reasons—either everything’s simply too fragmentary, or the color-values don’t work. In certain earlier paintings, he miscalculates how much of a given color an area of tone can take, like a wall, and the wall starts to shout and drown out everything else. Sometimes he senses that this is about to happen, and he holds his hand, leaving the area—and the painting—unfinished, and it’s beautiful. Later, when he catches on to the limitations of the two-step system (first a monochrome, then full color) and goes over into thinking in color weights, he can’t always balance them adroitly. He sometimes slips into a weird, self-defeating system of using orange to color, green to neutralize, and violet to shadow. This is to wish that colors behaved like values—which they don’t. In a black-and-white study, three girls with black hair look fine, but in full color three girls with orange hair just seem preposterous and cloying—especially when they all have the same purple shadows. In the history of the painter’s craft, Degas is a “hinge” figure whose greatest works have some of the static design-strength of the old tonal painting plus some of the dynamic color-building of the new. In pictures like the Chicago Art Institute’s The Morning Bath, or the Brooklyn Museum’s Femme au Tub, he points toward Bonnard and Vuillard and Fairfield Porter.

Denys Sutton’s Degas: Life and Work doesn’t contain much painting criticism, but it’s enlightening because it tries to set the record straight about Degas’s artistic development. Many friendships and influences are chronicled and explained. Unlike many déclassé patricians, Degas didn’t sink into secretive money-grubbing, but he was no saint of noble indifference, either. As Sutton unsparingly shows, he was really rather cruel; talent replaced class as an advantage to be pressed ruthlessly home. The revised Reff book, Degas: The Artist’s Mind, may disappoint some readers. It deals almost exclusively with iconographical matters that were probably intriguing when it first came out, in 1968, but have since lost much of their interest through over-interpretation (no fault of Reff’s). When Reff writes, apropos of Interior (the great canvas that preceded the rest of the late Henry P. McIlhenny’s collection into the Philadelphia Museum), that “The demand for ‘something white’ . . . resulted in the addition of a ball of white thread whose presence we might otherwise have sought to explain in iconographic terms,” does he really mean to suggest that an iconographic interpretation of this or any artwork can be self-sufficient and separable from a painterly reading? One doubts it; one wishes he had pursued some of his other interests further. He quotes an intriguing remark by Quentin Bell concerning Interior and several other Degas images of ostensibly sexual goings-on: “In all these pictures the left is, so to speak, the female side to the canvas—it is separated from the right by a central element, across which Degas sets a unifying diagonal. . . [and] the element of hostility between the sexes is apparent.” Reff supports Bell’s view that this device is an “expression of psychological alienation,” then drops the issue to pass on to a relatively minor iconographic problem. But we readers want to know who is “alienated” from whom, or what? If you carefully study the enigmatic Interior—the dim room with its sprigged wallpaper, the mean single bed, the kneeling woman in her shift, the fully dressed man with his back against the door —you may well come to the conclusion that since the separation of the sexes here and elsewhere in Degas entails a structural rift between left and right, it is not principally about man’s alienation from woman but about a split inside the artist himself. These pictures seem to be a reportage from within.

Degas’s true method was a kind of no-method, infinitely protean and expansible.

Again and again Degas’s compositions show this polarization between left and right; again and again they elegantly resolve it. Often it’s as if one side of the picture limped, or would limp if it hadn’t developed some system of adaptive compensation. This left-right tension, like the male-female tension in Degas’s execution, is one of the main things that his paintings are about; it shows how the medium of paint-on-canvas could be used to express the duality of one artist’s spirit. Yet Degas was not utterly eccentric, for we all feel a similar tug within ourselves. It should be mentioned, too, that as a pictorial dynamic it is by no means unique to his work. There’s no better example of Degas’s importance for Vuillard than the tatter’s Conjugal Life of 1900, in which we again behold the dark room with its busy wallpaper, and the sad woman on the left, and the man on the right with his back against the door.

Valéry mentions that when a certain critic accused Degas of “a constant insecurity in the proportions,” the painter heartily agreed. Constant insecurity is what necessarily comes about if you compose with arabesques and color weights; it shows that you're sensitive to the needs of your painting. The problem with a lot of academic writing about Degas is that it inventories and evaluates objects rather than color weights, yet even in his free copies of earlier masters Degas can be seen thinking primarily in terms of color, not of the seams between objects.

Richard Thomson reproduces two of these free copies in his fascinating book, The Private Degas. Thomson cares about Degas as a craftsman, and rightly believes that his way of working, the record of his temperament in action, shows more about him than any amount of anecdotal interpretation. One of the copies is of Mantegna’s The Crucifixion, which is appropriate, because Degas shared with the quattrocento painters a speculative interest in the artist’s métier. But whereas the Italians wished to use painting to find out about the world, to grasp how it presents itself to our eyes, Degas tried to apply the modern inventor’s empirical cast of mind to the practice of painting. With his contempt for spontaneity he pre-planned as much as he could, but once engaged in a piece, he’d slowly start burning his boats. He believed as completely in the “secrets” of the Old Masters as an alchemist in the Philosophers’ Stone, yet in moments of frank self-scrutiny would confess that he had not found his method—“that would only bore me.”

Degas’s true method was a kind of no-method, infinitely protean and expansible. Thomson elucidates at least three different techniques of hybridization—changing the medium, sometimes in mid-course; corrective or inventive tracing; and counterproofing, or the trick of turning over a drawing and rubbing it onto a fresh page. Any composition had nine lives; pastels grew through accretion, “like a coral reef.” Reading Thomson, you realize after awhile that Degas was a sort of neoclassicist of the self who regarded his own works as the classics to be copied and restored—Vitruvius and Bramante in one person. He often said that art was simply repetition, and this, perhaps, is why he so loved the rehearsals—the répétitions—of the ballet girls. “It is essential to redo the same subject ten times, one hundred times,” he maintained. Art, for him, had the compulsion of a vice; many artists did and still do regard such practices as essentially vicious, morbidly addictive in their power to sap creative freedom and confuse intentions. And it is true that Degas’s way of composing could create the effect of what Thomson calls “abrupt spatial disengagement,” as when he juxtaposed unrelated drawings and photos. Thomson points out that Degas “pillaged journalistic illustration” for figures and props and bits of stage business; yet that didn’t make him a journalist. It simply helped him to achieve the feel of the random and the adventitious. Of course he was “faking it,” as the illustrators say, but his fakery faithfully mirrored his obsession with Chance.

Valéry observed that Degas tried to “combine the instantaneous with infinite labor in the studio; to pin down the impression in the developed study; to hold the immediate in the time-lapse of willed reflection.” It was all mere sleight of hand, of course—an illusionism of spontaneity and firsthand experience—yet something in Degas’s style gives the game away. It is the half-finished quality which so often grants us a peep at the techniques of visual bluffing, and which calls to mind the holes in the fibs of the confirmed liar. For Degas, art was “a bag of shameless tricks to keep us looking honest,” as he once confided to Sickert. “We give the idea of truth with falsehood.” This unresolved tension between truth and falsehood is the grandest and most troubling of all Degas’s inner contradictions. When we read of how he turned to a fellow painter at the Cirque Fernando and said, “I thrive on shams,” or of how he told Ludovic Halévy one evening at a café that his little son Daniel was “vicious” and would thus “go far,” we can practically hear the nasty old man who loved to hang out in brothels and shock his dear friends with incredibly rude remarks. The Goncourts wrote that he was “the high priest of the religion of misstatement,” and though their meaning wasn’t quite clear, they surely had a point. In a sense, Degas was duplicitous, and like any great liar he loved to unmask another; he early perceived the small mendacities of the photographers. “Faux peintre, faux artiste,” he taunted Nadar. “Va done, eh! Faux . . . tographe!”

One of the many unusual inserts in Valéry’s jumble of a book is a sort of diary by Berthe Morisot, in the course of which she mentions a dinner for Mallarmé where Degas said straight out: “Art is falsehood.” It was only because Degas saw so honestly, though, that he could perceive the deceptions of his craft. Often summed up as one who pitilessly mocked his modern subjects with his cool and classicizing style, he actually reserved his sharpest sarcasm for his own devious procedures. Fairfield Porter wrote of Degas that he could not forgive life for not being art, yet we sense that he did love life, if only in the wistful, hooded way of those who feel that they have mere observer-status here on earth. It might be more accurate to say that he forgave art for not being life; even that—with a cynical fond shake of the head—he let it be a bit of a cheat.


  1.  This exhibition, entitled “Degas,” will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 11, 1988 through January 8, 1989.
  2.  Degas: Life and Work, by Denys Sutton, was published by Rizzoli in 1986 (344 pages, $85); Degas: The Artist’s Mind, by Theodore Reff, was reissued last year by Harvard University Press (352 pages, $16.95 in paperback); Looking Into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Lift, by Eunice Lipton, was published in 1986 by the University of California Press (237 pages, $35); The Private Degas, by Richard Thomson, was published by Thames and Hudson last year (143 pages, $19.95).
  3.  An English translation of Degas Danse Dessin may be found in Paul Valéry’s Degas Manet Morisot, translated by David Paul (Bollingen Series/Pantheon Books, 1960). The entire text is included in the book, which is Volume Twelve in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, edited by Jackson Mathews.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 9, on page 60
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